Category Archives: Lesson Planning

How Much Homework is Too Much?


When you’re a new teacher, it’s often hard to decide how much homework to give your students.  First of all, you need to check whether or not your school has a homework policy.  If there is one in place, you must adhere to it.  If there is not a policy in place, then you need to consider the following:

1.  What do your colleagues at the same grade level recommend?

2.  What are the ages of your students?  (This is a BIG factor.)

3.  What is really necessary in order to move learning forward?

Teachers are often in disagreement when it comes to how much homework to give.  I have had parents who have said that I gave too much homework when I taught 5th and 6th grade, and parents in the same class that said I gave too little homework.  Many times, it is not the amount of work you give, but the pace of the student who is doing the work.

There has been much research on how effective homework really is, but nothing that has settled the question once and for all:  Should all students have homework, and how much should they have?  Here are the factors I weigh when assigning homework:

1.  You want to promote literacy for students at all grade levels.  This is especially important during the early elementary years.  Will your homework increase literacy or increase tears?

2.  Will the amount of homework you give at night allow children and parents to have family time together?  Many parents work outside the home.  It is discouraging for parents to have Judy sitting at the table for three hours every night and not be able to participate in family activities.

3.  Is the work you are going to assign simply busy work, or does it serve a valuable purpose?

4.  Could the work you are sending home have been completed in class if you had planned your day more carefully?  For example, could Susie have done those ten math problems if you had not chosen to watch a movie for a class party?

5.  Are you assigning a project that mom and dad will end up doing, or will the student do it?  Will you have the whole family in an uproar running to Wal-Mart at 10:00 p.m. for supplies?

When I taught 5th/6th grade, the school policy was “no homework on Wednesday nights.” I was in a private Christian school, and Wednesday nights were to be set aside for attending services should a family choose to do so.  I usually gave a math test on Wednesdays which worked out great, because math usually created the most homework.  There are ways you can plan at least one or two NO HOMEWORK nights per week.  I encourage you to do this!

My conscientious students were usually able to get their homework done during the school day, because after making an assignment, I allowed students time to work on it. Most homework was either reading, long term projects, or work that did not get done during class time by students who worked more slowly.  Typically, homework from my class did not exceed thirty minutes.

In high school, where it is impossible to know how many other teachers are assigning homework, I usually give assignments twice a week.  Think this through.  If a high school student has seven classes and five teachers give thirty minutes of homework, the student will have to work two and one-half hours to get it done.  (And that is based on how long the TEACHER thinks it will take to complete the assignment.)  Consider the fact that the high school student may have a part-time job out of necessity, may be participating in sporting events, and/or may have other family obligations in the evening.

All that to say, make your class time count.  Maximize time on task.  Maximize learning. Be careful of doing so many special activities during the school day that you have to send all the academic work home.  Many parents are just too tired to fight the homework battle every night.  Many small children are also overwhelmed by it.

Choose your homework assignments carefully.  Make sure they are meaningful.  Make sure they are age appropriate.  More homework doesn’t mean you are a better teacher.  

My recommendation based on over thirty years of experience is that no elementary student should have to work over an hour per evening on homework. Frankly, one-half hour should be sufficient.  Homework every single night is not necessary.

At the high school level, you will have to use your personal discretion according to the type of course (is it a remedial or an advanced course?), and the type of student you are teaching (are you teaching honors students or students with special needs?)

Next, watch your students’ ability to complete the work.  Are many of your students overwhelmed?  Do they seem to be handling it well?  Are you getting calls from parents? Make adjustments as needed.  As you learn to gauge age-appropriateness and the time it takes to complete assignments, you can adjust your requirements according to your students’ abilities.


Creating the Need to Know

Creating the Need to Know blog

You’ve probably learned in college that you need to start your lesson with a hook.   Of course that’s easier for some lessons than others.  Unfortunately, it’s also easy to hook your students with a really cool attention-getting activity, only to have the rest of the lesson fall flat.

What you need to strive for in every lesson you teach is “creating the need to know.”  I learned this as a student intern from a well-written article that I’ve long since misplaced.  It has been one of the most critical pieces of information that I have put to practice in my many years of teaching.

Creating the need to know goes beyond the hook.  Here’s how it works.  Let’s suppose that I am going to teach a lesson on plants.  Younger kids may find this exciting, especially if they are going to get to plant seeds of their own.  Junior high kids will likely tell you “We learned/did  that in___________ grade.”  High school students will do the same.  The real trick is to put a different spin on the plant lesson  and make the case for why this information is absolutely essential to them.

Think of yourself as being a salesman.  You must give a reason for students to want your product!  Sometimes this takes a little acting on your part.  One of my favorite lessons is “Is it Alive?”  See the activity here.   I embellish this activity by telling the students that I have found something in my bathroom drain that behaves suspiciously, and I am wondering if they have ever seen anything like it.  Could it be alive, I wonder.  (The whole point of the lesson.) Pretending not to know whether it could be dangerous, I put on latex gloves, science goggles, and a mask over my mouth and nose.  I recommend that  the front row of students back up a safe distance from this unknown “creature.”  Of course this causes an uproar which is exactly what I want!

Some students refuse to breathe the air around my desk and ask to move to the back wall of the classroom.  Some students hold their hands over their mouths and noses.  It is actually very exciting.  I go to another room and return with a Petri dish with an “organism” in it.  I then put it on the overhead projector.  It swims, spins, eats pencil shavings, then appears to die in the light of the projector (It is light sensitive, I tell them).  I ask them if it is alive.  An interesting conversation ensues, and eventually we list the eight characteristics of living things on the board.  This is the information we use to assess whether it is living or non-living.

At this point the students are  totally engaged.  They are quite concerned that this was found in my bathroom drain and wonder if my family is in danger.  So much conversation is generated that a strong memory for this lesson is made.

And the reason they want to know what is in that Petri dish?  I have created the need to know.  They need to know if my family is in danger.  They need to know whether or not they have been exposed to an unusual life form.  We talk about the scientific method.  How do scientists identify these things?  How do we know if anything is alive or not?

You are probably thinking that you cannot do this when teaching math facts, or parts of a triangle, or subject/verb agreement.  But with a little creativity you will be able to come up with some great ideas.  Ask yourself…why would I want to listen to this lesson?   What would a teacher have to do to get me to become interested?

Use humor, suspense, competition, shock (not a bad kind), surprise, and anything else (with good judgment) that will make the information you have to deliver so compelling that students will sit up and take notice.  Sometimes I even lean forward and whispered. There’s an old saying, “People will believe anything if you whisper it!”  I have found this to be true.  Use whatever means you can to create excitement or suspense.

During your first year you will not be able to made every single lesson dramatic.   But you can create the need to know for all lessons.  Give your students a purpose for learning that meets a need in their lives today.  As you build your files of great lessons, creating the need to know will become second nature.

You may be wondering whether or not I come clean about the mysterious creature from my bathroom drain.  Some years I do.  Some years I don’t (if the students don’t ask.)  Of course if anyone has a legitimate concern that their health has been put at risk, I go ahead and tell them what I was using.  Whether I reveal the secret or not, it makes a great memory!  And they can generally repeat the eight characteristics of living things for quite awhile afterwards–which was exactly my goal!



Exactly how do I fill out the plan book?

The contents of the actual lesson plan book will vary from teacher to teacher.  Some teachers like to use an online plan book.  Others use the one provided by their school. Even others like to purchase a more colorful version at a teachers’ bookstore; however, for a new teacher, this is probably an unnecessary expense.  In a previous post I gave a sample written-out lesson plan as a guide.  This works well– AS A TEMPLATE– for understanding the thought process of developing a lesson or as something to give to an administrator when you are being evaluated.  But in reality, you simply don’t have time (or space) to put that much detail into a lesson plan book.

In the elementary grades, your plan book should have enough detail that I should be able to walk into your classroom in your absence and determine the following information, simply by looking at your plan book:

  • The time of day the lesson is taught
  • The subject matter taught during that time period (reading, math, etc.)
  • The specific lesson to be taught with page numbers if applicable
  • Whether there is homework or in-class work associated with the lesson
  • Any specials that occur during the day such as music, art, P.E., etc.

Keep in mind that you usually have a small box to write these plans in.  Try to picture yourself in the position of the substitute that may have to read your plans–more on that in another post!

Plan book 2

The plans are to guide YOU, not just a substitute teacher.  It’s like having a to-do list pinned to your refrigerator that keeps you on task.  There’s something about having your work planned IN WRITING that gives you confidence for the week and a feeling that you are on top of your game.  Keep in mind that some administrators require that you turn in your lesson plans once a week.  I turned mine in (at least photocopies) for many years until I began teaching in a large high school where it simply isn’t practical.

If you are teaching in a high school or middle school, it’s ok to use one side of the open lesson plan book for one or two classes periods and the other side for another.  Simply put the headings for the class you’re teaching at the top of the column.  In this case, I use the left hand page of the book for my Honors Biology class and the other page (to the right) for my Biology I class.  Because there is so much more room, I also add a column for absentees and one for preparation/copies to be made.

High school plan book